Among the many nuggets of fine prose in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, one stood out. Great writing gives articulation to our muddiest feelings and rationales. And in this passage, Smith found words to explain an enduring mystery. Why do I always bring books with me, even on trips with zero chance to read? Apparently, they are to provide ballast.
I’ll let Smith take it from here, as she depicts the enthusiastic student Zora Belsey’s trip across town:
Was anyone ever genuinely attached to anything? She had no idea. It was either only Zora who experienced this odd impersonality or it was everybody, and they were all play-acting, as she was. She presumed that this was the revelation college would bring her, at some point. In the meantime, waiting like this, waiting to be come upon by real people, she felt herself to be light, existentially light, and nervously rumbled through possible topics of conversation, a ragbag of weighty ideas she carried around in her brain to lend herself the appearance of substance. Even on this short trip to the bohemian end of Wellington – a journey that, having been traversed by car, offered no opportunity whatsoever for reading – she had brought along, in her knapsack, three novels and a short tract by De Beauvoir on ambiguity – so much ballast to stop her floating away, up and over the flood, into the night sky.
When travelling, even just into town to meet someone for a coffee, I am rarely without at least three things to read. A mixture of magazines, books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction clogs up my bag. It has frequently drawn a worried look from friends, concerned that if their conversation dips below a certain threshold of wit, I will reach for my latest read. Luckily I have very entertaining friends.
When asked, I’ve never given a good reason as to why I am a literary pack animal. I would use complete impossibilities to justify this curving of the spine. What if war breaks out between my flat and the pub, and I’m conscripted and spirited away to a faraway trench with nothing to read? I’ll just pack these three Scandinavian crime novels and a book of Robert Frost poetry just in case.
But now I’m beginning to empathise with Zora. Not so much with carrying books for the sake of being seen with them, the desire for gravitas. Rather because books give us gravity. They pin us down.
The fetishizing of books has been discussed many times on here. This is not about that. It has also been noted that books are not sacred objects. This is not about that either. This is about what they contain. This is about literature.
Literature gives us an internal compass, a way to negotiate all life’s rough and tumble. It gives us insight, empathy, direction and warning. It is a concordance for the physical world, a magnificent prism through which reality is refracted. Much loved passages whisper in our ears. Long-dead authors hold us by the hand. Half-forgotten poems fill our mouths. Literature is present at the birth of our first child and the ordering of our morning coffee. It fills us.
What is the alternative? A life without literature would be one unmoored. Which is why, in the same way a ship is constantly attached to its anchor, even when it is not in use, I am never far from mine. Being able to reach into my bag, quietly thumb a well-broken spine, is sometimes all I need to stop me floating away into the night sky.